Many factors can motivate people to participate in elections. Some of the most common reasons include a desire to have their voices heard, a belief that their vote can make a difference, a sense of civic duty, or a desire to support a particular candidate or party.
If people didn’t think their voices mattered, they wouldn’t bother showing up to the polls. The belief that your vote can make a difference drives participation in elections. In a democracy, every person’s vote is considered equal, so each individual has the power to help determine the result of an election.
By casting a vote, individuals can help shape the policies and decisions that affect their daily lives. In this way, elections can be a way for people to participate in the democratic process and have a say in the direction of their country or community.
A sense of civic duty, reflecting a belief in the importance of democracy and the value of participating in the decision-making process, is also a common motivator. Many people feel obligated to participate in the democratic process and help shape their community’s future.
Additionally, support for a particular candidate or party can motivate people to participate in elections. Many people have strong political beliefs and want to support the candidate or party that aligns with their views, especially in highly competitive elections where a small number of votes may determine the outcome.
Those are the broad strokes, but the devil is always in the details. Any political professional will tell you that voter turnout is essential to winning an election, if not the most important. At the end of the day, in this case, Election Day, the key is motivating voters to cast their ballots. After all, what does it matter how many people support a candidate if they don’t vote for them?
The key to motivating voters comes down to one word: persuasion.
Persuading voters to support your candidate. The goal is precisely what the name suggests; you want people to agree to vote for the candidate. Persuasion to support is generally accomplished through traditional campaign methods, including door-to-door canvassing, direct mailers, phone banking, text messages, social media, and in-person events, like meet and greets or showing up at community events. If you asked someone who has never worked on a political campaign to describe how to get elected, their response would likely consist almost exclusively of persuasion to support tactics.
There is a threshold question, often subconscious, for most voters that can be a serious barrier to winning their vote. Is the candidate likable to the voter? It may seem simplistic, but it really can make a difference. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Personality titled “Personality and political preferences over time: Evidence from a multi-wave longitudinal study” tackled the question from a scientific perspective. The authors examined the link between the Big Five personality traits (openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) and political preferences developed over a campaign. The study concluded that personality plays an important, dynamic role in the formation and change of political preferences throughout political campaigns-a role not entirely visible in cross-sectional analyses.
In non-scientific terms, voters are more inclined to vote for you if they like you. However, despite the objective scientific evidence proving that liking a candidate is important, the vast array of factors that go into a voter deciding whether they like a candidate is highly subjective and difficult to predict.
Some people, especially those who consider themselves to be politically active and astute, will evaluate a candidate based on factors they deem to be relevant. Others, especially those with limited political experience, will decide based on a wildly different thought process.
We can put these factors into three distinct categories:
- Does the candidate have a firm understanding of the issues that the voter cares about?
- Does the candidate have specific ideas to address existing problems?
- Does the candidate exhibit the personality traits the voter believes appropriate for the job? For example, are they a fighter, and if so, is that the kind of candidate the voter wants to see elected?
- Does the candidate have a compelling and inspirational background or personal narrative?
- Is the candidate electable? Can the candidate beat the opposition? (No, they’re not the same thing.)
- Is the candidate qualified for the office they’re seeking?
- Could specific demographic connections create a bond between the candidate and the voter? Examples include gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, occupation, religion, or even living in the same neighborhood.
- Did the voter have a personal interaction, such as a candidate knocking on their door as part of a canvass, that influenced them positively or negatively?
- Is there a potential personal benefit for the voter? The possibility of getting a job or some other inside access through a political connection can be a powerful personal motivator.
- Does the voter have a positive or negative association with individuals or groups supporting the candidate, like endorsements from prominent community leaders or organizations like labor unions?
- I like the colors of that candidate’s yard signs.
- That candidate showed up at our county fair, so she must care about us. Plus, she was eating an ice cream cone, and I love ice cream cones, so she’s getting my vote.
- That guy running for office is named Larry. My pet parakeet when I was nine years old was named Larry. I loved Larry the Parakeet, so I will probably love Larry the Politician. #VoteLarry
- The candidate came to my door to introduce themselves while I was in the bathroom. They should have known I was in the bathroom before they knocked on my door, so they’re not getting my vote. I only vote for people who don’t bother me while I’m in the bathroom.
While the nonsensical examples may seem a bit outlandish, they represent the random nature associated with why voters choose to support (or not support) political candidates. The correlation between voter engagement and the factors that motivate them is critical when turning supporters into voters.
Voters at the bottom of the information and/or partisanship scale are most likely to embrace nonsensical motivations. For them, the stakes of an election are generally not very high, so they’re not afraid to be a bit whimsical with their voting choices. These are the people who root for sports teams based on the mascots; while maddening for those more deeply invested, they get to cheer as loudly as anyone.
High-information voters may skew more toward ideological factors driven by their heightened issue awareness. For them, it’s about finding the right person for the job; shockingly, whether a candidate shares the name of a beloved former pet is not a driving factor in the voting process. (Sorry, Larry.)
Voters who view their candidate preferences through a practical lens can be further divided into two subgroups based on the specific election. For national and statewide elections, voters who prioritize practicality are likely to be highly partisan. They often believe that the worst member of their political party is preferable to the best member of the opposition party, ultimately prioritizing issues relating to electability. Given the increasing polarization of American politics, particularly at the state and national levels, this zero-sum approach is hardly surprising.
Practical motivations can be very different in local elections, especially in races where party affiliation is not the defining characteristic of the candidate. Personal relationships play more of a role between the candidate and the voter, which makes sense given the higher likelihood of interaction in a small community compared to a sizeable legislative district. Broader relationships within the community also take on heightened importance, with vocal support for a local candidate much more likely to be noticed within the voter’s existing professional and social networks.
The impact of supporting a candidate in a local election is more personal than political for the voter, resulting in higher stakes. If the candidate conducts themselves negatively either during the campaign or after they are elected, their actions could reflect on the people in the community who actively supported them. There are real positive and negative repercussions for supporting a candidate for local office. Unless the voter has a direct stake in the outcome, most folks tend to be risk-averse and avoid unnecessary involvement. This lack of “skin in the game” could help explain the perpetually lower turnout in local elections.
Once the campaign has won the “persuasion to support” battle, the emphasis shifts to the persuasion to participate. There are various campaign participation levels, including volunteering and donating financially. Successful campaigns use a ladder of engagement method to identify and target people for specific actions, moving them up and down the ladder to maximize their contribution while keeping them involved and engaged. But for this discussion, we will limit our definition of “persuasion to participate” to the act of voting for a specific candidate.
The good news is for many voters, persuasion to participate is a foregone conclusion. The better news is that by utilizing voting history data, we can predict with a reasonable degree of certainty who will vote and who won’t. One significant factor worth mentioning is the sharp increase in mail-in voting in many states due to the pandemic. Vote-by-mail and early voting laws effectively changed how millions of people cast their ballots, causing old voter turnout models to fluctuate. However, any political professional worth their salt should still be able to predict turnout with a reasonable degree of certainty.
These high-turnout voters, often referred to as super voters, are highly motivated to vote and need little or no persuasion to participate. With them, the battle is won by winning their support.
The true challenge for a campaign is persuading the infrequent voter to participate. As previously discussed, these folks are usually not invested in politics, which means voting is more the exception than the rule.
And here is where many candidates and campaigns make a fatal mistake. Winning the persuasion to support the battles is worthless if the person doesn’t follow through by actually voting. Too often, campaigns assume participation is a foregone conclusion when it is anything but certain. Using our example of the nonsensically motivated voter, it’s great that they agreed to vote for you because they like the colors on your campaign sign, you like ice cream, or you share a name with their dead parakeet. But because their rationale for supporting you lacks any substantive causal connection to the election itself, the likelihood that they will take the affirmative action of voting is questionable at best. The stakes are too low for them to prioritize voting suddenly, which means the onus is on the campaign to follow up repeatedly to ensure they get to the polls to honor the memory of Larry the Parakeet.
Voters motivated by practical reasons fall somewhere in the middle. The stakes are more clearly-defined, especially if they have a personal stake in the election’s outcome. A “carrot and stick” strategy could be very effective; let voters know how their vote could make a difference while reminding them of the negative consequences of failing to cast their ballot. It is not uncommon to see this tactic taken to the next level by political organizations sending people mailers politely but emphatically reminding them that their voting record is public. While admittedly heavy-handed, this thinly-veiled threat of “vote-shaming” is an unmistakable example of persuasion to participate.
In conclusion, the factors that motivate people to vote wildly vary across the political spectrum. Every election has quirks and nuances that require expert knowledge of which levers to pull to get the desired result. Smart campaigns will differentiate between persuasion to support and persuasion to participate through a voter contact plan that combines effective messaging and a plan of action to turn supporters into voters.
And if the candidate happens to share a name with someone’s dead parakeet, be sure to find a way to turn that grief into a vote.
After all, Larry would have wanted it that way. #VoteLarry
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